It’s no secret that Hidilyn Diaz struggled to keep her mental health in tiptop shape just before her big day at the Tokyo Olympics. In May, she admitted in an interview that her biggest enemy was overthinking. She needed to conquer it to be able to fully focus on her technique and the task at hand: lifting the necessary weight to get her the Olympic gold.
She admitted Thursday at the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines meet that yoga helped her relax and focus. “Kasi siyempre, kung tense ang mind mo, tense din ang katawan mo,” said the Filipino champ, replying to ANCX’s question. It was already in May when Hidilyn began her yoga sessions, on the recommendation of Karen Caballero, Deputy Secretary General of the Philippine Olympic Committee.
“Nag-try lang ako nang once, and nagustuhan ko,” explained the champion weightlifter who was training in Malaysia for the past year or so. “Kasi siyempre masyado nang mataas ang pressure [that time]. Sa totoo lang, three months before, medyo hindi na ako nakakatulog. Kasi alam ko na medyo malakas na ako, and good thing with yoga, nakapag-relax ako, nakapag-focus ako, and kino-concentrate ko lang 'yung breathing ko, then nagme-meditate ako. So sobrang thankful ako sa coach ko sa yoga, si Coach Ayn.”
Who is Coach Ayn?
For those who have been asking who this Coach Ayn is, he’s Ayn Latonio. He was tapped by the POC Deputy Sec Gen to train the Pinay athlete. Ayn has been practicing yoga for seven years now and teaching traditional yoga for five.
Based in Cebu, Ayn would meet Hidi online Sundays—which was the only time the latter was free for a session. He patterned their practice according to Hidi’s program from the previous week. “At the beginning of the class, I would just ask her to sit for a bit. This was the time I try to observe her energy, her demeanor, her breathing—even if it was just online,” Ayn tells ANCX. “At times when she seems energetic, I give her slightly intense physical practices. At times when I observe that she’s quite agitated, we lean more towards pranayama (yogic breathing techniques) and meditation.”
Their sessions also became a learning experience for the coach. “At times I needed to Google the program she had because a lot of her exercises were new to me so I had to study the movements.”
And because yoga was new to Hidi, Ayn had to explain the movements to the Zamboangueña every step of the way. “It will be very hard to incorporate a new practice into your routine blindly,” the teacher says. “I try to explain it in terms of science and in terms of sports.” Good thing Ayn also came from the world of athletics—he was previously member of the basketball varsity team of the University of Southern Philippines—and so somehow spoke the same language as Hidi.
Tokyo is real
As July came closer and the pressure of the Tokyo games got increasingly real, Hidi requested that another session be added to her once-a-week meet with Coach Ayn, even if it was shorter than their usual. He agreed.
“I even gave her homework so that even if we only meet once or twice a week, her yoga practice continues. Even if they’re just simple practices, they have profound effects on the practitioner,” says Ayn.
So how exactly did yoga help the Olympian? “Our sessions mostly were aimed at teaching the body to work as a system, because that’s what the body is—each organ, tissue, cell helping each other out,” explains the instructor. “It’s not just ‘Okay, these are the movements for weightlifting so we’ll focus on these.’ We learned to see the body from a more gross perspective to a more subtle one. We also learned how to manage our energy to only engage the muscles that are needed for a certain activity and relax all other muscles. That we conserve whatever energy is left and at the same time make her recovery quicker.”
Coach Ayn also provided Hidi with exercises to improve her breathing, a practice that he says improves blood circulation by increasing blood flow to her heart, and a breathing technique that raises nitric oxide levels in the body and improves the bones’ ability to absorb calcium. “While it might sound absurd, yes, there is a yoga technique for that,” says the coach.
“But most of all, we learned how to not be controlled by the mind, and to control our minds instead,” Ayn stresses.
Gifted and willing
To hear him say it, the tough lady from Zamboanga was everything a yoga teacher could wish for. “The best gift a teacher could have is a willing student,” Ayn offers. And Hidi was that and more.
“Hidi is gifted not just physically but in her yoga practice as well. In that short span of time that I spent with her, she learned so many things. She has this ability to calm her mind rather quickly, which most yoga practitioners nowadays who are so caught up with the physical practice of yoga struggle with.”
The coach recalls that the night before the Tokyo competition, their last teaching session, he decided Hidi will do only a few physical practices, “and that we will only give our movements around 50 percent effort, nothing strenuous.” But after hearing this, Hidi asked if they can do their regular practice instead. "To keep my mind off things,” she said.
“I didn’t say a word after that and just started the session,” Ayn tells ANCX. “She was so agitated at that time but around 10 minutes into the practice I can see her start to calm down right away…By the time we were in meditation, she was into it. So mentally absorbed was she that I extended the meditation time which I don’t think she even noticed.”
Coach Ayn closely watched his student’s moment of truth in Tokyo, of course, albeit only from his laptop in Cebu.
“I know very little about techniques in weightlifting but as a former athlete, I understand the advantage of having a calm and peaceful mind,” explains the yoga practitioner. He shows us a clip of Hidi awaiting her turn at the podium, likely taking a moment to collect herself. “This was probably my favorite part,” he says, “when everything around her was in chaos yet she got to that point of pausing, closing her eyes and just calming herself down. That’s the gift I was talking about.”
It’s been said many times that sports happens 98 percent in the mind, and for Coach Ayn the truth in this assumption can not be any more vital. “Imagine having clear thoughts while competing, even in those times that require a heightened sense of awareness and physical demand,” the teacher offers. “Imagine having that power in your body but at the same time having a sound mind to command that body and control that power. That’s why during her breaks, as I watched, I kept saying ‘Breathe, Hidi, breathe’ in front of my computer screen.”
Coach Ayn believes that Hidi’s gift in yoga practice comes from her faith. He brings up a verse from the Yoga Sutras that says “perfection in these states of meditative absorption comes from complete surrender to God.” Ayn says this is what he and his gifted student constantly talk about at each meeting. “And I think this is where she draws her gift of power and calmness from,” he says seriously.
Even after the games, the yoga instructor says he continues to be in touch with the Philippines’ first Olympic gold medalist. He reminds her to pause and breathe, just like she did just before her moment of glory at the weightlifting podium. “Because our life is no different,” he says to ANCX. “We are always in competition, we are always facing so many different stressors. What we can do is to control how we react to that stress in such a way that we don’t waste our energy on unnecessary things. So maybe Hidi might still be stressed now, maybe—hopefully not—overwhelmed with her duties, interviews here and there, courtesy calls, etc. She could use the pause no matter how brief it is.”